“From one day to the next the shrines were empty, the pilgrims disappeared but the mission of the friars is not forgotten. We are now living our first mission: to be in the Holy Places, pray in the Holy Places and take care of the Holy Places.” Fra Siniša Srebrenović, the guardian of the Convent of the Agony(Gethsemane), of the Custody of the Holy Land, was in the Basilica on the morning of 7 October last, when the antimissile sirens sounded in Jerusalem as well, and a new war broke out, between Israel and Hamas.
History repeats itself
“Nobody thought of a conflict of this intensity,” he says, Fra Siniša arrived in the Holy Land in 2006, the year of the Lebanese War but, like the majority of the friars of the Custody of the Holy Land, he does not remember any particularly dramatic periods, even though the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had peaks of tension and exploded in a few days of guerrilla warfare. And yet, he notes, “if we browse through the chronicles of the convents these times are found further back in time, when there were no people, or there were very few groups.” Now the most immediate and closest comparison that with the Covid pandemic, when “from one day to the next people disappeared from the shrines.”
The first mission
When the war broke out, the shrine was full of pilgrims: for the whole of October, before the cancellations due to the conflict, more than 30 groups were booked every day for the celebrations, “which means at least the triple of presences,” fra Siniša says. For the friars, “almost all the forces were concentrated on welcoming pilgrims to the shrine, which is part of the mission, but many times it makes us lose the dimension of prayer.” Now that the problems of organization have disappeared,” the friars of the Custody have gone back to relish the flavour of their “first mission: to be in the Holy Places, pray in the Holy Places and look after the Holy Places, independently of whether or not there are pilgrims or what is happening around us.”
The prayer of Gethsemane
The community of Gethsemane is currently made up of five friars. The day is marked by moments of prayer and community life. It begins at 6.30 a.m. with Lauds and Mass and it comes to an end at 6.30 p.m. with Vespers and the Eucharistic blessing. Then there is the Holy Hour, every day from 8.00 p.m. to 9.00 p.m., and on Thursdays at 4 p.m. the Votive Mass of the Shrine. “Our task,” says fra Siniša, “is above all to keep the shrine open, to ensure that people can visit it and pray there.” Now that the surroundings are also completely empty and silent – the complex of the Basilica is fairly isolated from the city and also from the Arab neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem -, this is even more obvious: “We are here and we pray, which is the spirituality of Gethsemane: Jesus who prays and the Father who sends the angel to comfort him. This is the place of the prayer of consolation. Here it is precisely the humanity of Jesus that emerges strongly, but afterwards it is the will of the Father - ‘Not my will but yours be done.’ (Luke 22,42)”.